A lot of parents are wrestling with what to do about Halloween this year. Normally by now, we'd be masking up differently with the face of our most frightening politicians or horror movie characters and experiencing the frightening glee that comes with haunted houses, costume parties, and yes, the often ill-conceived and worse-executed slumber party seance. Instead, stores are pouring in candy and decorations and, given how unnecessarily divisive the mask situation has become, are looking at each other, wondering, "what the hell do we do now?"
The bad news is that unless you live in an area of low population density where no one travels, ever, trick-or-treating does come as a higher risk choice this year. Not only that, even if you feel fine taking your little ones around for candy, your neighbors may not cotton to the idea of the repeated risk of exposure - or the risk of exposing you and your kids- over and over for two to four hours in a single night.
The good news is, we still have plenty of options for having a great time on Halloween night - many of which are really celebration styles that pair well with the original version of All Hallow's Eve.
If you're here because of the book I wrote on Samhain, you already have the general knowledge of the day as the Celtic New Year/Summer's End. While certainly an ancient holiday, many people share their joys in very modern ways at this somewhat solemn religious/spiritual celebration, and they have that part covered. I am focusing on the secular here: Halloween, as we know it in the United States, began as a civic holiday. The civic cause? Reducing the near-billion dollar cost of vandalism in the 1940s and 1950s happened because of Mischief Night traditions practiced by teenagers of Scots-Irish and English descent. After curfew orders utterly failed in multiple locales (making something illegal is rarely sufficient to stop people from doing something they truly enjoy), most communities throughout the US found a different way to minimize but not stop the damage: trick-or-treating. Community parties. School-themed holiday events that kept the kids right where all the adults in the community could see them. The Halloween we know, both beloved and reviled, anchors in how much it costs to fix fences, broken doors and windows, and cows put in positions impossible for both person and cow.
While inevitably pumpkins will get smashed this year as they do every year, the current Halloween culture has reduced most of the damage costs to the "hey, I was gonna make a pie with that!" and "you're going to waste that toilet paper after what happened last spring?" While it may seem like a vague good compared to what we never gave thought to in 2019, it's a silver lining, however thin. I bring up this perspective because coming up with alternatives, especially for Halloween, takes a certain dogged optimism combined with a truly warped sense of humor. Here are a few options instead of trick-or-treating that allows you to be out with your best ghouls on Halloween night:
1. Socially Distant Treat Distribution
Get a giant plastic bowl, put the treats in, and then mask up and refill every few minutes. This does take a higher trust in humanity or really knowing how your neighbors behave. For people that really enjoy the parade of costumes, you could perhaps set yourself up in a bubble of some kind - someone out there has been dying to dress up as a hamster, and here's the perfect opportunity.
2. Halloween Caroling
This one is straight-up cultural appropriation from the Hop'tu'na celebration on the Isle of Man. People would go door to door with a horse skull, singing. Often they sang traditional folk ballads. As an animist, I have some guesses what that was about, but until the dead horse explains it to me directly, I'm not willing to say. That said, dressing up your family as the Addams Family (or anyone in your COVID safety circle) and singing the theme door to door from several feet away is a fun and goofy way of observing the day. Besides, nothing scares people quite like just being weird. You may want to look for other scary songs on Spotify, too.
3. Kale Divination
Those of you that read my Samhain book know that pulling Kale stalks on Halloween is a long-forgotten tradition, in part because a lot of that kale now ends up in burritos. If you happened to grow some this year as part of your quarantine victory garden and couldn't gather it before the first snow, you can have your little ones go in and pull kale stalks and read them bones-casting style. Most divination of the past focused on who you would marry. Harvest season celebrations were about dating and socializing, and it's no coincidence September and October are referred to as "cuffing season" today. You can find how to do this in some fantastic free Google Ebooks.
4. Clean Up a Gravesite
I encourage this act of kindness every year. Find an abandoned grave, and clean it up. While you might not have the means to replace a crumbling or broken gravestone, you can clear the leaves away and trim back the weeds a bit. Be sure to leave a penny or dime at the head of the grave and at the gate to make sure the dead remain behind!
5. Tell Scary Stories
You might not be able to stand close together, but you can either go outside and talk from a wide circle or use Zoom to start a storytelling circle with neighbors, friends, and family. Each of you can have a great time making something up, trading local folklore, or rehashing weird movie plots. While I wouldn't recommend a bullhorn for something like this, if you have the means to get a cheap wireless microphone, it wouldn't hurt.
6. Drive Around and See the Scary
After living in San Francisco, I am a bit spoiled - people go all out for Halloween in the Bay, including decking every spare surface with the Halloween of it all. A lot of people take great joy in decorating their yards in spooky ways. If you have the means to drive around and enjoy the orange and purple lights. You could take pictures of your favorite decorations, and do a reverse trick-or-treat, and leave a nice note on a Post-It on the doors of people whose decorations you especially enjoyed. If your family plays Pokemon Go, Niantic often has Halloween themed critters only catchable in October and early November so that you might work in a few family raid battles along the way.
7. Have a Socially Distant Dance Party
There are also several indoor, private celebrations in keeping with All Hallow's, original edition Many of them involve quiet divination and storytelling. And there's no reason you can't still make popcorn balls and taffy!
Yes, 2020 is weird and has forced us to change when humans collectively really hate change. Halloween traditions, among others, may have to change - but we don't have to lose the spirit of fun. We have to find a new way to invite that fun in.